No. 14 Penn State (20-10-4) will travel to Ann Arbor for the final two games of the regular season this weekend. There is a lot on the line for both teams, particularly a bye in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. The USA Today and USCHO.com polls each have the Lions ranked fourteenth in the country, holding steady from last week.
The Lions are currently ranked 17th in the PairWise rankings. If the season ended today the team would not be invited to the NCAA tournament, but there is plenty of time to improve positioning. We'll take a look at the potential tournament scenarios for the team.
Big Ten Tournament Seeding
Penn State will finish in either the second or third spot in the final Big Ten regular season standings. The Lions trail front-runner Minnesota by 7 points with only 6 possible total points, two games, remaining. Fourth-ranked Ohio State trails PSU by 7 points with only two games remaining, so the late-surging Buckeyes will not catch the Lions.
The difference between a second place finish or finishing third is monumental. The top two teams receive a first round bye and would only have to win two games to win the tournament. Finishing third would require the Lions to play Wisconsin in the first round, and then two games after that to win the title.
Michigan leads PSU by 3 points heading into the final two-game series. If Penn State does not win the series, it will not get a bye in the Big Ten tournament. A split or worse would have the Lions playing on the first day. Should Penn State win one game and the other end in a tie, the No. 2 seed would go to the winner of the shootout following overtime. That scenario, should it unfold on Saturday, would be one of the most intense moments in Big Ten hockey history. Any type of win by Michigan on Friday, however, be it in regulation, overtime or a shootout, would end Penn State's chances of grabbing the two seed.
NCAA Tournament Scenarios
The process that the selection committee will use to fill out the sixteen-team bracket is as clear as any in major college sports. The PairWise standings are used to mimic the process that will be used. All six conference tournament winners will make the tournament, while the remaining at-large bids will go to the highest remaining teams in the PairWise. The tricky part lies in prognosticating the eventual winners of the conference championships.
For every conference winner that is outside of the top 16 in the PairWise standings, a team inside the top 16 will get bumped. Currently the Atlantic Hockey Association is the only league that does not have a team ranked in the top 16. That means at least one team will get bumped out of a tournament bid. If all of the conference championships went to teams currently ranked in the top 16 other than the AHA, the top 15 teams in the PairWise would advance to the NCAA tournament.
That scenario is possible, but not all that likely. Minnesota, for instance, is ranked seventeenth in the PairWise but is currently favored to win the Big Ten tournament as the top seed. It is likely that two or maybe even three teams in the final PairWise top 16 standings will get bumped by a low-ranked conference winner.
Still the Lions are just a couple of wins away from a possible PairWise ranking of fifteen or higher. The at-large bid chances for the team are not far-fetched, it is just too soon to know what will unfold in the conference championships around the country over the next two weeks.
The other way for the Lions to make the NCAA tournament is to win the Big Ten tournament. That's why the series this weekend with Michigan is so important. Should the Lions grab the No. 2 seed, their road to a B1G championship becomes much easier.
There are many milestones that Guy Gadowsky's squad has already reached in the fourth season of division-one competition. The first twenty-win season has been achieved. For the second season in a row the team will have a winning record overall and in conference play. Penn State has been ranked in the national polls since November 23rd, a span of nearly four months. Prior to this season the team was only ranked twice in program history, and each time it fell out of the rankings in the next poll. The team has never finished higher than fourth place in Big Ten regular-season standings and it will finish no lower than third this year.
The team has achieved enough consistency in its play that they are playing meaningful games late in the season for the second year in a row. In what was once thought to be a rebuilding season, a gap between last year's squad and the influx of talent coming to PSU in 2016-17, the program has set the bar higher than anyone could have imagined.
The Lions hold not just their own destiny in their hands heading into the final weekend, but also that of Michigan. The Wolverines lost a total of five games all season prior to being swept last weekend by the Buckeyes. Should PSU sweep Michigan, it could face the team again in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. If Michigan looses the final five games of the year, or five of six, it may drift down in the PairWise standings to the point of being left out of the NCAA tournament. That would be absolutely devastating for the Wolverines and their fans, after the team spent the majority of the season ranked as one of the country's top-five teams.